a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Number of the Beast (1979)
Robert A. Heinlein
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Engineer and physicist Jacob Burroughs invents a time machine which lets him travel to what we might consider "alternate universes". The underlying mathematics involves the notion that there are in fact 6 dimensions (three spatial and three temporal, for symmetry) and hence (?) 666 universes. Moreover, travel between universes can be achieved by application of linear operators which include rotation of these dimensions. Not only can Burroughs travel, he must travel to alternate universes to escape those who now wish to kill him. For no particular reason, these alternate universes turn out to be made up of those that we know through our fiction in this universe, including Oz, Lilliput, Camelot, and many characters from earlier Heinlein novels.

The book refers also to Cantor's approach to set theory, but doesn't get it quite right. In fact, most people would agree that there isn't much that this book got quite right.

Contributed by Jimbo Jones

I really wouldn't consider mathematics important to this story at all; they're only present in the way "science" is present in Star Trek - as a convenient and misapplied label for a deus ex machina plot device, in this case, travel through literary stories the author thinks sounds like fun.

If you're a teenager (or an uncritical adult looking for "popcorn reading"), it's not a bad read. But DON'T expect any kind of learned discussion of science or math; Heinlein was known in the 30s and 40s for providing some pretty solid and interesting (for the time) engineering speculation in his fiction, but his pure science is... not so good.

Look to Larry Niven's classic SF stories if you want more thoughtful play with science and math - Niven is famous for actually doing the math to figure out that a large structure (Ringworld) would require a greater tensile strength than ordinary matter can provide. (He's almost equally famous for going back and writing a sequel to fix the problem when a bunch of MIT students did more calculations and determined that the Ringworld's orbit would be unstable.)

Contributed by Doug Marcum

I'll get arguments here, but I think this book is the most autobiographical of his novels. Of course, by the time he wrote it he had a lot to look back upon.

Note: In 2020 an alternative version of this novel was published for the first time based on Heinlein's notes for an original draft. The other version is similar in many ways, including in its nonsensical use of mathematics.

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Works Similar to The Number of the Beast
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes by Robert A. Heinlein
  2. The Infinitive of Go by John Brunner
  3. The Mathematics of Magic by L. Sprague de Camp / Fletcher Pratt
  4. Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein
  5. All on a Golden Afternoon by Robert Bloch
  6. And He Built a Crooked House by Robert A. Heinlein
  7. Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
  9. Star, Bright by Mark Clifton
  10. White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem? by Rudy Rucker
Ratings for The Number of the Beast:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2.62/5 (8 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.23/5 (9 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifTime Travel,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Logic/Set Theory,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)